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Many Essential Employees Still Rely On Buses For Daily Commute


Companies are bringing workers back. Some essential employees never stopped. NPR's Leila Fadel spent the morning on a Los Angeles public bus with one of them.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: A cleaning crew of three disinfects the bus that Nelson Cabata is about to begin operating. He looks on with a face covering concealing his nose and mouth. And when they're done, he does his check.

NELSON CABATA: We got to perform the break test.

FADEL: He checks the brakes, the tires, looks for damage. Then he pulls out yellow caution tape from a storage cupboard.

CABATA: I want to make sure that I got enough.

FADEL: He tapes off the seats nearest him.

CABATA: This also is going to protect me because my bus is not going to get crowded in the front. It's only going to get crowded in the back.

FADEL: Only those who need the space for wheelchairs or walkers will board from the front. Everyone else boards in the back. It's one of many precautions Cabata takes.

CABATA: I'm the only one that provide for my family. If I get sick, what's going to happen to my family? Every day that I go home, I'm going, thinking - I hope that I didn't bring it.


FADEL: This morning, he's driving bus line 68. It's a 10-mile route that stretches through downtown, along Cesar Chavez Avenue, through east LA and out to a now-deserted mall. Typically, he's navigating through gridlock. But on this morning, he cruises past mostly empty bus stops. Every once in a while, Cabata picks up a passenger. The bus flashes a sign and plays a recording reminding people face coverings are required.


FADEL: The demand for public transportation has dropped dramatically from 1.2 million to just under 400,000 people per day in the city. But there are those who depend on buses and trains to get them to the bank, to the grocery store or to their jobs. And many of them are people of color. It's part of the reason COVID-19 is hitting Latino and black communities harder than others. Experts say it's reflective of longstanding inequities, lack of access to healthy food and health care. But it's also the kind of jobs and transportation people depend on. A study from the Economic Policy Institute shows that far fewer black and Latino residents in the U.S. can telework compared to others. On this day, Maribel Leynez, a full-time student, is headed to her full-time job at a downtown pharmacy.

MARIBEL LEYNEZ: I'm more aware. I have to be more cautious and more safe. Sometimes I don't even want to take the bus.

FADEL: Her commute is risky, and so is her work.

LEYNEZ: Since the pharmacy is located in downtown, we're primarily at a higher risk because of the population. Majority of our customers are homeless people. And some of our regulars have already contracted the virus.

FADEL: The homeless are particularly vulnerable to infection. They have less access to soap and water and often live in crowded spaces, so Leynez feels more exposed. On top of that, her hours have been cut. She lives with her mom, who also is an essential worker at a meat packing plant.

LEYNEZ: We usually pay our rent on time, but now we're paying it, like, a week or two weeks behind.

FADEL: Leynez is one of millions of essential workers who stayed on the job throughout this pandemic. At first on the bus, she was terrified. She was constantly wearing gloves and using hand sanitizer.

LEYNEZ: But now, honestly, I try not to scare myself. I try not to touch my face. I wash my hands as soon as I can. As soon as I get to work, I wash my wands. I sanitize my phone.

FADEL: She still wears a mask. But like so many, she's getting tired of being so cautious. The bus is usually pretty empty. She notices, though, that today there are more people. And she worries that as the city opens up, the buses will soon be crowded and she'll have to risk sitting close to someone else who could make her sick. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.